Youngsters worry about environment

February 21, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

When it comes to appropriate environmental behavior around the house, Father doesn't know best. Neither does Mother.

A national poll says it is the youngsters who not only worry more about the declining planet but also are doing more about it.

This emerging environmental "generation gap" is the overriding message in a survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc., a Washington-based public opinion analyst. Although the environmental movement has been nurtured by millions of adult Americans since the 1970s, the survey notes, "Today much of the impetus for the green revolution is coming from a new generation of kids and teen-agers."

In an unusual role reversal, kids -- motivated by the belief that protecting the environment will be the biggest concern facing them by 2000 -- are setting the example for their parents.

"For today's youth, no issue ranks as high as the environment in shaping the world in which they are growing up," says the Hart report. The company conducted telephone surveys of 880 youths ages 11 to 18 and 411 of their parents for its statistical findings.

But 52 in-person interviews sketched a better picture of a generation burdened with ozone thinning, frustrated by news of air pollution and rain-forest shrinkage and at least slightly irritated that their parents aren't paying more attention.

"They keep re-electing people who don't do anything," complained a 12-year-old boy from Albuquerque, N.M.

Among the survey results:

* Asked which member of the family is most concerned or involved in environmental issues, a majority of young people cite themselves, and a majority of their parents agree.

* Asked if parents have left them better off or worse off in four categories, children gave parents good marks for values, race relations and making the world safer, but 60 percent said that they have been left worse off environmentally. (The generation gap showed up here; 45 percent of their parents agreed.)

* Asked what issues they try to influence their parents on, more youngsters cited recycling (60 percent) and buying environmentally responsible products (52 percent) than wearing seat belts, quitting smoking, giving up alcohol and having a proper diet, among others.

* In many instances, the concern is poignant. Asked to discuss the most important problems facing the United States, a Spartanburg, S.C., teen-age girl replied, "Whether my grandkids are going to be here after I'm gone, if the ozone layer goes like it is."

The study was undertaken for the World Wildlife Fund, the world's largest conservation organization.

"A survey of kids is very unusual," says Hart research analyst Debbie Klingender. "Kids are not an easy group to get on the phone. We didn't want to do it through the schools.

"We're very pleased at what we found," she adds. "The question about kids lobbying their parents to recycle and buy responsible products sort of blew us away. And the parents substantiate it: The kids were not over-reporting."

There were other surprises.

"I think young people and adults in general don't see the political process as the most effective way to bring about change," she says. "That's why environmental groups have grown so much."

And despite their sense of being handed a deteriorating world -- a Maine teen-ager said, "I'd most like to know how long we have, at the rate we're going" -- young people haven't given up.

They are looking to be more than household activists. "Their interest and their concern outstrip their knowledge," says Ms. Klingender.

The survey findings will be used by the WWF to shape its five-year "Windows on the Wild" educational program at zoos, aquariums and natural history museums across the country.

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